1. Marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity e.g. Kafkaesque bureaucracies.
  2. Marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger.
  3. In the manner of something written by Franz Kafka.

There are precious few writers whose names have transcended their status as a proper noun. Dickens has become an adjective to describe conditions like the down and dirty worst of Victorian London. Costume dramas, with baroque and intricate plots are routinely described as Shakespearean, even if Shakespeare himself wrote plenty more than that limited style. You come across references to terms such as Orwellian but mostly in a political context.

In the genre world, I see references and have myself used terms like Dicksian (for Philip K Dick) and Moorcockian (For Michael Moorcock). Borges, too, is sometimes used in this way as well. The Cervantes character Don Quixote is an adjective now, too.

And, possibly foremost amongst all of these is Franz Kafka. How many people, who have never read a single line of his fiction glibly and correctly describe their travails with the frustrating bureaucracy of the Department of Motor Vehicles as “kafkaesque”? Or describe a strange metamorphosis as being “something out of a Kafka story?”, even if they have never read Metamorphosis themselves? Plenty. The city of Prague has a small tourist industry in the writer, with plenty of branded items and even coffeehouses named after him.

For a man whose work was mostly published after his death, hardly a success in his own lifetime, Kafka is a man whose legacy, ideas and ethos influence us today. Kafkaesque, a new anthology of stories edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, seeks to explore the work and ideas of the man whose ideas have become an adjective but whose work is at best under-appreciated and oftentimes misunderstood.


Kafkaesque offers us three kinds of stories:

  1. Stories that derive from specific works of Kafka, transposing the ideas of Kafka in a direct fashion. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Garage, for example, is a retelling of the Trial in a garage you definitely don’t want your tow truck to take you to.
  2. Stories that use Kafka as a character. One of my favorite stories from this collection is Paul Di Filippo’s The Jackdaw’s Last Case, which has Kafka as The Shadowesque superhero.
  3. Stories that use the methods and materials of Kafka: A much broader category, these are stories that present themselves as stories that Kafka, in another life, could possibly have written, with the influence sometimes subtle and sometimes overt. Like Eileen Gunn’s Stable Strategies for Middle Management, which combines metamorphosis with the modern corporate rat race. And, a classic Jorge Luis Borges story, The Lottery, is here as well.

And, I suppose a fourth kind, the man’s work itself. There is a new translation of Kafka’s the Hunger Artist, by John Kessel. There is also a graphic interpretation of the Hunger Artist, illustrated and written by R. Crumb and David Mairowitz.

Add to this an essay by Kessel and Kelly that provides a biography and reflection on Kafka’s work, as well, titled “Why Kafka?”

It’s an extremely rich and potent collection. I’ve read a couple of these stories before, in other contexts, and put together with their other stories, I found the similarities and parallels and comparisons of theme, writing and exploration of Kakfa to be illuminating. I do have to say that, of the stories I have not read previously, the aforementioned DiFillippo story is probably my favorite. It has that sort of off-the-wall sensibility of the author, fused with Kafka as an unlikely protagonist. Even better, armed with a basic knowledge of Kafka’s history and biography, the story is replete with references and parallels in ways both playful and thought provoking.

The full table of contents:

  • Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist” (new translation by John Kessel) 
  • J.G. Ballard, “The Drowned Giant” 
  • Terry Bisson, “The Cockroach Hat” 
  • Michael Blumlein, “Hymenoptera” 
  • Jorge Luis Borges, “The Lottery in Babylon” 
  • T. C. Boyle, “The Big Garage” 
  • Paul Di Filippo, “The Jackdaw’s Last Case” 
  • Carol Emshwiller, “Report to the Men’s Club” 
  • Jeffrey Ford, “Bright Morning 
  • Theodora Goss, “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow” 
  • Eileen Gunn, “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” 
  • Damon Knight, “The Handler” 
  • Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz, “Receding Horizon” 
  • David Mairowitz and Robert Crumb, “A Hunger Artist” 
  • Philip Roth, “’I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka” 
  • Rudy Rucker, “The 57th Franz Kafka” 
  • Carter Scholz, “The Amount to Carry” 
  • Tamar Yellin, “Kafka in Brontëland” 

Do I recommend Kafkaesque to you, dear reader? Well, yes. How many of you have you heard the name Kafka and immediately thought of “The Trial” or “Metamorphosis”, but never actually read his work? How many of you have recognized that some of the best work, both within, on the borders of, and outside genre has been influenced by Franz Kafka (If, by no other reason, one or two generations removed, via transmission by Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K Dick)? As you can see from the lineup, we have authors both firmly within and without of science fiction and fantasy who have made use of the rich material Kafka offers those who seek to read his work.

To quote from the end of the essay on Kafka:

“That the work of a man who died as Kafka did, convinced that he had never fulfilled his promise, should produce ultimately so many works, and more than that a vision of the world that compels us to see his influence even where it may not exist, is a powerful a mystery as any of the startlements Frank Kafka wrote in Prague almost one hundred years ago.”

The editors have chosen a diverse and interesting selection of stories to celebrate Kafka’s work and make that invisible presence and influence explicit and know, and for that, I offer plaudits.

And John Kessel and James Patrick Kessel? How about doing a volume like this on Jorge Luis Borges next? I’d pay good money for that!


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One Response to Transcending Part of Speech: Kafkaesque, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

  1. Galen Dara says:

    most intriguing! I shall definitely be picking this book up. thank you!

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